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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How the U.S.-China War of 2022 Could Begin over Taiwan

Carrier-Killer Missile Tests
Image from the now closed WantChinaTimes.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might go to Taiwan on Aug. 2, and China is perturbed at the possibility. While Pelosi’s official itinerary does not mention Taiwan and focuses on other Asian allies such as South Korea and Japan, two sources quoted by Reuters say Taiwan is on the list. China insists there will be severe consequences if Pelosi does visit Taiwan – especially if the speaker meets with Taiwanese independence activists.

Chinese Defense Minister Zhao Lijian released a statement replete with the usual bravado and veiled threats he is known for. “We would like to tell the United States once again that China is standing by, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never sit idly by, and China will take resolute responses and strong countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

What Might China Do? Thinking Through the Terrible 

This rhetorical showdown raises the question of just what China is willing to do militarily against Taiwan, or even against the United States. The most likely scenario is that China would fly warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone during Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. In June, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force flew 29 airplanes into Taiwan’s air zone. These flights usually feature various fighters and H-6 bombers, along with electronic-warfare airplanes, airborne command-and-control aircraft, and anti-submarine airplanes. The fighters could send a more serious message by test-firing missiles in Taiwan’s vicinity. They could even stage a small, show-of-force kinetic attack by actually dropping a small number of bombs or firing a limited number of missiles at military targets in Taiwan such as anti-aircraft systems and air bases.

In a second scenario, China might order its navy to blockade Taiwan’s critical harbors. They certainly have enough ships for such a mission, with 350 naval ships and 130 coast guard vessels, plus an assortment of fishing vessels that populate the armed maritime militia. A blockade would start with a Chinese carrier battle group securing the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese Communist Party has announced that the People’s Liberation Army Navy is already executing live fire drills near the Pingtan Islands, off Fujian province. This is the part of mainland China that sits closest to Taiwan. A blockade would allow China to cut off arms shipments to Taiwan. It could also stop and inspect imports and exports to the nation, giving a disastrous shock to Taiwan’s economy.  

Next on the escalation ladder is an all-out amphibious attack to invade Taiwan. This would be the most serious possible operation – PLAAF aircraft would hit coastal military targets with missiles and bombs. Then, hundreds of ballistic missile launchers on China’s eastern shore would soften the landing zones for an invasion.

China could also use fighters and bombers to start an attack, then use ground launchers to either test-fire or actually detonate missiles on Taiwanese territory. China could then stop the hostilities right there, with its amphibious landing ships ready to go. This feint attack would still send a message to the world that China is deadly serious about the Taiwan question.

Washington’s Reaction

How would the United States respond? First, there would be a major deployment of U.S. surface vessels, comprising at least one carrier group plus submarines. U.S. ships are already in the East and South China Seas. From there, the U.S. government’s national command authority would have to decide what to do next. The White House would convene a National Security Council meeting for further consultations. If China actually attacks Taiwan kinetically, the Council would have a stark choice – either intervene, or stay back and see how serious the attack against Taiwan is. The United States would probably send weapons to Taiwan as quickly as possible, though a blockade would limit that effort. From there, rules of engagement would have to be devised so that U.S. naval leaders know how to proceed. If fired upon, the U.S. Navy would obviously respond in kind. The next step would be for U.S. President Joe Biden to contact Chinese President Xi Jinping, seek a cease-fire, and try to maintain some sort of peace between China and Taiwan. 

The Likeliest Choice

The blockade option is China’s most probable recourse. It achieves many tactical and strategic objectives for Beijing. They have enough shipping to block key ports, and the United States would be less likely to intervene. A shooting war would not be necessary to bring economic ruin to Taiwan. 

China could be bluffing, starting a mere war of words over Pelosi’s possible visit. Military options for China are on the table, but a full-fledged attack against Taiwan is less likely than a blockade.  

U.S. options are poor, other than a show of force with one or two carrier battle groups. With so many ships and airplanes in the region, accidents or miscalculations could lead to shots fired. This could spark a wider war. Hopefully China will refrain from the blockade or other provocations, and the United States can continue to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific without having to resort to force.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.



  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 1, 2022 at 6:43 pm

    Now that we’ve seen the effects of the “mature precision strike regime” on land warfare. I’m eager to see its effects on Naval warfare.


    China will be even less successful in gaining air superiority than Russia, because of the 100+ miles of ocean surrounding Taiwan, even stealth aircraft will have a hard time remaining unseen with all the eyes. Air borne assaults are of course impossible without air superiority, as the Russians have demonstrated in Ukraine.

    The Russian naval losses to anti-ship missiles are evidence that Chinese surface ships are steel coffins just like Russian tanks and armored vehicles which at least can hide in trees and buildings. Taiwanese military assets are going to be hiding until needed, and like the Ukrainian defenses, remain mostly intact. Combat aircraft are protected inside mountains.

    Blockading Taiwan will be difficult when anti-ship missiles are sinking every ship for hundreds of miles around (Taiwan has 1,200+ anti-ship missiles + other stuff). Also, China is guaranteed to be blockaded by the US and its allies which all hate the Communists (98% of China’s trade will end, permanently). Which means its militarized artificial islands and warships in the China sea will get bombed, missiled, and torpedoed to extinction.

    All of this ignores the fact that China must conduct an amphibious landing to conquer Taiwan, in the face of Hellfire missiles, Javelins, HIMARS, Anti-ship missiles, guided artillery rounds like Excalibur, and buttloads of dumb weapons. I doubt the US Military with its veterans and experience in amphibious operations would ever set boots on Taiwan in the face of all those smart weapons. The inexperienced Chinese stand no chance at all, and might never even get out of port before being destroyed.

    The “mature precision strike regime” is ruthless, and while both sides missiles are in range of each other, they can hide, but Taiwan can hit every one of China’s obsolete surface ships which can’t hide.

    A comment on ship anti-missile defenses. They suck, and are easily overwhelmed by dozens of missiles all arriving at the same time (2 missiles destroyed the Moskva 13,000tons). Chaff is the only successfully used anti-missile defense, and anti-ship missiles are now designed to ignore chaff, other decoys, and EW. The only defenses that still work against smart weapons, are speed (run away), stealth (hide), and distance (out of range). EW is potentially useful against specific weapons, but is easily countered.

    Send in the attritable drones, and stay hidden or out of range is the best strategy.

  2. Joe Miller

    August 2, 2022 at 4:31 am

    I think the author grossly overestimates Chinese military capabilities. China has no hope to successfully conquer Taiwan right now and even the blockade option relies on the assumption that the Taiwanese do nothing. Apart from saber rattling and continue to fly in the Taiwanese air defence zone there is not much the Chinese can do. Of course that assumes that Xi and his aides are still rational and not half mad like Putin.

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